Gates: Common Application comes with drawbacks


Matt Gates, Columnist

Now that Northwestern’s early decision deadline has passed,  applicants are left with about two months before many schools will stop accepting applications for regular admissions. Many students will spend the holiday season finishing up applications while anticipating a response from their first-choice schools — or taking the risk of waiting for an answer before completing the rest of their applications.

For my parents’ generation, applying to college involved separately completing applications to five schools or fewer. But this process looks entirely different for many members of my generation. Electronic applications, especially the Common Application, allow applicants to apply to many more schools than students in previous generations. While an electronic Common Application makes the college application process easier in some ways, its drawbacks should not be forgotten.

The ease of applying to numerous schools may incentivize students to apply to far more schools than they would have otherwise. Even if a student is only interested in attending a couple “top” schools based on fit, he or she may feel driven to apply to numerous other highly ranked schools out of a desire to be admitted to any “name” school. Falling admission rates at top schools may drive students to increase the number of schools they apply to, which in turn may drive admissions rates down further. Students are not necessarily less likely to be admitted to a top school but are less likely to be admitted to their top school of choice due to the increase in number of applicants who may not truly be interested.

This cycle is reflected by the simultaneous increase in the number of schools students apply to and the decrease in the admission rate of many of these schools. At the same time, NU has seen an all-time low admission rate during each of the last two years. This trend is common at other selective schools such as the University of Chicago and members of the Ivy League.

But this application proliferation is more than just aggravating; it potentially disadvantages low-income students. While Common Application schools accept application fee waivers from the College Board and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the NACAC  “recommends limiting the use of the (College Application Fee Waiver form) to no more than four schools” because it “is intended to be used at the schools to which a student is most interested in attending.” Likewise, the College Board limits a student to four fee waivers. Therefore, a low-income student is far less likely than a high-income student to be able to play the game of applying to 10 highly selective schools and gaining admission to one.

Furthermore, low-income students must handle a multitude of other disadvantages in the college application process. Low-income students are far less likely to have access to private college counselors, making applying to an overwhelming number of schools less doable. They are also less likely to attend private schools with well-connected counselors who may be able to gain an inside word about their chances at a particular school.

Likewise, when students apply to more schools, it results in a lower yield at each school, which may make early decision applicants more attractive to colleges. Like certain organizations do with application fee waivers, schools like NU attempt to make early decision accessible to students of all backgrounds. However, I have still met students on NU’s campus and elsewhere who did not apply early to their top-choice schools because they were afraid of a binding acceptance accompanied by insufficient financial aid.

The Common Application has its benefits, but it comes with drawbacks. Moreover, college admissions committees, such as NU’s, that emphasize the importance of supplements examining why a student chose a specific school encourage students to apply only to schools they are actually interested in. Likewise, students who avoid disingenuously applying to “name” schools will alleviate the vicious cycle of increasing application numbers and declining acceptance rates that hurts all applicants.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].